Eggplant can transcend culture and cuisine. It’s a vegetable at home in any number of cultures. I found it on the menus here at Italian, Indian, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants.
Eggplant can be relegated to side-dish status or always in the ubiquitous eggplant parmesan. I purposely left that dish off the list for this assignment; it’s too easily found. I was going for eggplant esoteric here.
In restaurants around town, eggplant takes center stage in inventive ways for vegetarians – or even for an omnivore looking to add just a bit more nutrition with dinner. However, as is the case with much restaurant food, eggplant is only as healthy as the ingredients with which it’s prepared.
Click more to read about four eggplant dishes on menus now. If you eat a vegetarian diet, please note that the level of vegetarian friendly varies at every restaurant. Ask before ordering.
Your turn: Please comment here to tell us where you eat your favorite eggplant dish, even if it's eggplant parmesan.
Le-Le RestaurantWhere: 1012 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, TacomaInfo: 253-572-9491 orhttp://le-le.restaurant.home.comcast.net/~le-le.restaurantGig Harbor location: 4747 Point Fosdick Drive N.W., Gig Harbor; 253-514-6382 orhttp://lelerestaurant.com (not reviewed for this article)
The dish: Fried eggplant with tofu, $9.95
The fried eggplant is listed as dish number No. 54 at LeLe, a Vietnamese restaurant on Tacoma’s Hilltop. (The restaurant has a more upscale outpost in Gig Harbor). I’ve ordered it so many times, I have the number and the dish memorized.
Bite-size slices of Japanese eggplant were boiled before being battered and deep fried. The thick flour batter, flavored with soy and sesame oil, provided a crunchy, chewy jacket. The chewy texture might bother some palates, but I appreciated that it yielded to a creamy soft eggplant interior.
Le-Le’s fried eggplant arrived at the table sizzling hot atop a skillet with a stir-fried assortment of carrots, onions, mushrooms and red peppers. A spicy-sweet garlic-flavored sauce collected saltiness from soy sauce, and sweetness from honey, which also created a syrupy texture. Red pepper flakes added zip. The sweet sauce combined with the brittle crunchiness of the eggplant makes me think “eggplant candy” every time I eat No. 54, which I always order with fried tofu (spongy tofu squishes nicely with chewy eggplant).
At LeLe, vegetarian is taken seriously when it’s ordered that way. Owner LeLe Tran told me by phone, “We don’t put any meat in it, we won’t even use the same pans or utensils.” She calls it “completely vegetarian.”
Three Sisters Tacoma SzechuanWhere: 9601 South Tacoma Way, TacomaInfo: 253-581-0102 orwww.tacomaszechuan.com
The dish: Eggplant in hot garlic sauce, $9.50
A News Tribune Facebook fan suggested this eggplant dish at Tacoma Szechuan, a Chinese restaurant on South Tacoma Way. The reader called the dish “yummy,” and that pretty much summed it up for me.
Japanese eggplant was partially pealed, sliced into bite-sized wedges, and sautéed with a fragrant, flavorful, pungent ginger-garlic sauce with a citrusy edge and a light but punchy sour bite. While the eggplant was soft, it did retain some of that fibrous texture that some find bothersome with eggplant. The sauce – like I’ve found with most saucing at Three Sisters Tacoma Szechuan – trended to the gelatinous side of thick. The sauce might have been sticky, but it provided body for the slippery eggplant. The dish wasn’t nearly as spicy as I had thought it would be from the menu description, so do ask for more heat for the desired mouth sting. This dish is listed on the vegetable menu, but it does not say whether it is vegetarian.
Another eggplant dish on the menu: Eggplant with soy sauce ($9.50). It is prepared in much the same way as the eggplant with hot garlic sauce, but with a mild, savory sauce fueled by soy.
Sumay Fine Indian CuisineWhere: 12623 Meridian Ave., PuyallupPhone: 253-770-6276
The dish: bhartha, $9.95
If you’ve never heard of bhartha, think of it as the Indian version of baba ghanoush, the Middle Eastern roasted eggplant dip (which I had a difficult time finding locally. Your recommendations, please). But as is true with most Indian food, bhartha ratchets up the flavor scale with aromatic ingredients and earthy spicing.
At Sumay, an Indian restaurant on South Hill, the bhartha ($9.95) was roasted in the tandoori oven, then the pulp slow cooked with onions and tomatoes. Peas, more solid than mushy, added sweet pop. The dish was scented with cumin and coriander, and a pungent note from garlic and ginger. The spicing was moderate, but the addition of cream tamed the heat. This is a dish made for scooping with naan, an Indian tandoori-cooked flatbread, but fragrant basmati rice makes for a more substantial companion for bhartha. The eggplant dish heats up even better on the second day (if it lasts that long). At Sumay, it’s listed on the vegetarian menu.
Mona Pizza & PastaWhere: 6104 Sixth Ave., TacomaInfo: 253-565-0505 orwww.monapizzaandpasta.com
The dish: Eggplant pizza, $11.45, 10-inch; $16.45 12-inch; $20.95, 15-inch
This deep-dish pizza at the newly opened Mona Pizza & Pasta demonstrated the functionality of eggplant as a substitution for meat. Whole slices of roasted eggplant were layered beneath a thick crust of melted cheese. The garlicky tomato sauce overpowered the delicate flavor of the eggplant, but the soft texture of the eggplant provided a smooth mouth-feel against the squeak of the cheese. The pizza toppings turned sharp with a vinegar bite from whole kalamata olives and generous pools of gooey goat cheese. Roasted red pepper slivers sweetened up that sharpness.
One note on the toppings: I appreciate pizza that is more democratic in its distribution of toppings, providing multiple flavors in a single bite. With Mona’s pizza, I felt I had to chase after the flavors in alternating bites because the toppings were so spread out and cut so large (whole olives, large shards of red peppers, etc.). And the crust was soggy and underdone in the center. This pizza is listed on the “without meat” menu at Mona.